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There would be no gangsta rap without Marion "Suge" Knight — but the law, and his health, are catching up with him.
Once called "the most feared man in hip- hop" by Rolling Stone, the founder of Death Row Records helped propel the careers of West Coast rap stars like Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre. A former professional football player, Suge was known for his imposing stature and gangster persona. He was often seen around his native Los Angeles wearing blood red suits and holding a cigar in his hand. For him, loyalty was mandatory.
"Death Row is a way of life," Knight explained to the New York Times in 1996. "It's an all-the-time thing. And ain't nobody gonna change that."
But Knight, 52, is in a grim third act. He's incarcerated and awaiting a trial on accusations that he ran over two men in 2015, killing one. His health problems have haunted him while he's behind bars, and he's run into multiple medical scares, including a hospitalization this month for an unknown illness.
Before his trial begins, here's what you need to know about one of the most notorious names in hip-hop:
Before Knight was a music mogul, he made plays on the football field. At 6-foot-2, the guy known as "Sugar Bear" played defensive for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and was voted Rookie of the Year. In 1987, he played two games as a defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams as a replacement player during the NFL strike, according to The Undefeated.
Early Legal Woes
In 1987, Suge was arrested for attempted murder and pleaded no contest. When asked about the incident, he told The Washington Post in 2007, "It went to a misdemeanor...I shot him with his own gun." Three years later, he pleaded guilty to felony assault with a deadly weapon after pistol-whipping the victim.
Suge's large stature came in handy in the music industry. He served as a bodyguard for artists including Bobby Brown and immersed himself in the industry, eventually meeting artists like Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E.
Ice Ice Baby
Knight is known for his tough-as-nails approach to business. One rumor that followed him for years is that he dangled Vanilla Ice over a balcony in 1996 over a financial dispute. According to the urban legend, Ice owed one of Knight's artists, a man named Mario Johnson a.k.a "Chocolate," money for his work on the "Ice Ice Baby" rapper's album.
In a 1996 interview with ABC News, Ice claimed Knight threatened him and forced him to sign over $3 to $4 million in music rights to Johnson, who Ice said had nothing to do with contributing to his music.
Knight dismissed Ice's story.
"Never happened," he laughed. "C'mon man. That's not true."
It's unclear what happened as Ice told a different account on VH1's "Behind the Music.
"Suge took me out on the balcony, started talking to me personally. He had me look over the edge, showing me how high I was up there. I needed to wear a diaper that day," he said then. "He didn't hang me off from any balcony, okay? The story's been kind of blown out of proportion and I want to clarify that Suge and I have no bad feelings towards each other."
Come to Death Row
Death Row Records was the home to gangsta rap and Knight became successful by signing artists who lived the life they rapped about. In 1996, Death Row Records was estimated to be worth $100 million, according to Vibe. Tupac was bailed out of prison for $1.4 million following a sexual abuse conviction and Snoop Dogg beat murder charges.
"We called it Death Row ’cause most everybody had been involved with the law,” Knight told Vibe. “A majority of our people was parolees or incarcerated-it’s no joke. We got people really was on death row and still is.”
Knight wasn't just behind the scenes. He inserted himself into the East Coast vs. West Coast hip-hop feud by publicly shaming The Notorious B.I.G., Sean "Diddy" Combs and Bad Boy Records.
"To all you artists out there, who don't wanna be on a record label where the executive producer's...all up in the videos, all on the records, dancin'... then come to Death Row!," he famously proclaimed at the 1995 Source Awards.
After the death of Tupac in 1996, Death Row Records began its decline. The label and Knight both filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2006 and began auctioning off assets in 2009. LA Weekly shared photos of the items being auctioned, including portraits of Knight and a MTV Video Music Award belonging to Snoop Dogg.
Following this, Dr. Dre sued Death Row Records for over $3 million in unpaid royalties but that suit was dismissed.
Then there's the unsolved murder of Tupac and whether Suge was involved, even setting up the rapper who was reportedly trying to leave Death Row. Suge dismissed that notion. As he told the Washington Post, he was close to Tupac and he himself was injured in the drive-by.
"I got a .45-caliber bullet an inch into my skull," he said. "There's the bullet and there's the shrapnel."
In 2015, Suge was arrested in a fatal hit-and-run incident. He's accused of running over Terry Carter and Cle "Bone" Sloan with his car, killing Carter. Authorities believe that the incident followed an argument about the way Knight was being portrayed in the "Straight Outta Compton" biopic about NWA, The Guardian reported. Knight's lawyers maintain that Knight was scared and fleeing for his life, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Knight has been charged with murder and attempted murder. In 2016, he had an emotional breakdown, claiming that his health is failing while he's incarcerated. "My time is ticking some days because of the health problems I have, and right now I am not getting a fair chance to prove my innocence," he said to Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald Coen, according to the New York Daily News.
Knight could face 20 years to life in jail if convicted.
[Photo: Getty Images]
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